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THIS is apropos of the letter ‘Bilingualism’ by Asadullah Naqvi (May 8). He considers bilingualism as a major problem of Pakistan. We have to be very clear and straightforward about this fact that we (Pakistanis) are not bilinguals: we are in fact multilinguals.

It has been argued, in fact, that there is no such thing as totally monolingual country. Even in countries that have a single language used by the majority of the population (e.g Britain, the US, France, Germany, Japan), there exists sizable groups that use other languages.

In the US about 10 per cent of the population regularly speaks a language other than English. In Britain 100 per cent minority languages are in routine use. In Japan, one of the most monolingual countries, there are substantial groups of Chinese and Korean speakers.

In Ghana, Nigeria and many other African countries that have a single official language, as many as 90 per cent of the population may be regularly using more than one language.

In Pakistan, in addition to six major languages, there are about 57 other languages, some of which, unfortunately and due to the lack of protection by the state, are about to die. Most of their speakers have shifted to other languages or their speakers are no more alive today.

Whether bilingualism increases the learners’ knowledge or it leads them to confusion has long been under heated debate. In 1808 a German teacher named Jahn warned that bilingual education was likely to entail verbal and cognitive retardedness. On the contrary, in 1939 the North American Neurosurgeon Penfield recommended that children be given bilingual education whenever possible.

In modern times, however, mother tongue education has been rendered as significant. Unesco in its report (2003) also supported mother tongue instruction as a means of improving educational quality. This serves two purposes: on the one hand, the learners can understand concepts better and, on the other hand, more importantly they come to respect their language and identity.

Urdu is the mother tongue of only 7.57 per cent people of Pakistan. The remaining 92.43 per cent of the population has diverse mother tongues. It would be injustice not to allow this huge number of people to educate their children through their mother tongues.

After they have learnt through their mother tongues, they can be exposed to other languages, such as Urdu and English.

Owing to an ambiguous language policy by the state, these problems have mounted. If Urdu and English are the only languages of instructions, then what is going to happen to other languages of Pakistan? They’ll either die out or will merely be limited to a narrow circle.

Languages are gateways to cultures. If a language dies, its culture dies too. Are we killing our cultures? Why can’t we emulate the west which is so conscious about preserving its languages and culture? In the UK the Foundation for Endangered Languages (established in 1995) and in the US the Linguistic Society of America’s Committee on Endangered Languages and their Preservation have been handling many inquiries and fostering research initiatives.

I request our policymakers to formulate a comprehensive language policy in which mother tongue instruction be made mandatory in all the provinces and each language should be regarded as significant as Urdu and English are.